Diary of a Visiting Assistant Professor, week 32: Another Wikipedia Assignment

Last semester, in a seminar on Charles Dickens, I assigned students to update a Wikipedia page for a Dickens character. I briefly discussed the assignment on this blog in December, putting my own assignment in the context of other professors who have used Wikipedia in their classes in various ways. The exercise worked well for the course, not only teaching students how to contribute to a website they use every day but also giving their hard work a public audience. And so I incorporated a similar idea into a course-long assignment I had developed for my Romanticism course this semester. I won’t say a lot about the assignment itself (Wikipedia is just one small piece of it), but since this blog allows me to use embed a Juxta comparison, I want to talk about the Wikipedia portion and share a collation set (if you don’t know what Juxta is, I give a brief explanation in an earlier post).

First some background. Wikipedia has glossary of literary terms page, which has been around since 2006. The page’s value has been contested since it was created, and in October it was nominated for deletion. The consensus was to keep it (you can view the discussion on the talk page), but when I encountered it in December, as I was putting the class together, it was mostly empty. It had terms, but almost no definitions.

I already had an assignment planned for my Romanticism course, designed to help students talk more precisely about poetic form. As part of the assignment I gave each student a couple terms, and they were responsible for looking up the definitions in multiple sources, then writing one in their own words. I put the terms together to create our own course glossary, which I distributed to students, including the names beside each definition. Since the glossary of literary terms page was mostly empty, this seemed an opportunity for the class to make a public contribution together. I asked each student add their definitions to the Wikipedia page. Here is a Juxta collation showing their progress, with January 15th (the day I gave them the assignment) as the base text:

[I’ve taken this out, and the one below, as Juxta’s been giving an error — I’ll add them back if and when it’s fixed]

And here is the same collation, with April 8th (by which time they’d entered their definitions) as the base:


On the juxtacommons website you can also view a side-by-side comparison, like this one comparing the page on January 15th with April 8th. As you can see, the glossary is extensive, covering much more than poetry terms (which have their own glossary, in a different format). But the students still made a significant dent. Most (but not all) of the updates are from my class, and some students even added definitions for terms that weren’t on our list (like “novel.”) Overall I think the exercise was  success, even more so than last semester’s version. Next week I’ll discuss this assignment a bit more, in particular a couple of pitfalls, some I anticipated and a few that surprised me.

Have you used Wikipedia or a similar project in your class? Did you take Wikipedia’s own suggestion and have students write a long-form article, or did you develop your own assignment? How did it work? Tell me about it in the comments.

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